Susie Wolff

by Dima Alzayat

For a Beast? Claws. And I? F1 Speed
Disclaimer: On my way to meet Susie Wolff, ‘the fastest woman in the world’ and the only female Formula One driver—she was named Development Driver of the Williams team last year—I decide that the last thing I want to focus on is her being a woman.

My reasons for this are valid, I think. At 30, Susie has been racing for over two decades. Her early karting competitions led Wolff to Formula Renault and Formula Three before she moved on to DTM, the German touring car series, and then made the leap to Formula One, the highest echelon in motorsports. And yes, the hype, both positive and negative, surrounding the first woman to get this close to possibly qualifying for an F1 world championship race in 40 years is to be expected. But I can’t help but think that no male driver would get this much attention for simply being a man in a racecar, and that bothers me.

I’m waiting in the swanky lobby of the Tiger Lily Hotel in Edinburgh’s new town considering this when Wolff appears. Hard as I try not to be, I am struck by her appearance. She is dressed in soft neutrals—cream, beige, and pink—her blonde hair hangs perfectly straight. Her diamond earrings reflect the overhead lights. And she is tiny. I’m having a hard time imagining this woman suited up and in a racecar zooming down a track. She looks so feminine.

I halt these thoughts and mentally grasp for third-wave feminism jargon to apply to this situation and before I know it, we are talking all about gender and femininity in the male-dominated world of Formula One.

“When people figure out that I’m a racing driver, they say you can’t be a racing driver, you don’t look like a racing driver and I say, ‘Well, what do you want a racing driver to look like?’”

I think about that. I don’t know. Just not like that? “That’s why I really fight against the stereotype,” she says, perhaps anticipating my response. “I make an effort to be feminine.”

For Wolff, the attention she draws is dual-edged: supporters expect her to live up to her trailblazer persona and make the leap to F1 competition while detractors watch her every step, insisting “Formula One is not for women. It’s never been successfully done before.”

Wolff, who now lives in Switzerland with her husband, is in Edinburgh for a graduation ceremony. I don’t ask whose, half-assuming it will be a relative’s, and she excitedly reveals that it’s hers. Having left the University of Edinburgh following a year of study to pursue professional racing, she is now being awarded an honorary degree for her contribution to women in sports. Her voice rises in excitement when she tells me that she will get to wear “a cape and everything.”

Growing up in the small town of Oban on the west coast of Scotland, Susie’s love for racing sprouted at a young age. Her father was a racer and her maternal grandfather, David Tye, was a motocross rider. Perhaps most instrumental to her development, her mother’s fondness for riding motorbikes. Wolff explains; “[She] never gave me the impression that I should be playing with dolls or Barbies and that I shouldn’t be on a motorbike. I grew up thinking, well, gender doesn’t really matter.”

I manage to steer the conversation, and my thoughts, away from gender, and I really want to know, what does she love so much about racing? What makes it worth all of the obstacles and the noisy critics?

“I love the adrenaline. I love the speed. The competition. I love the fact that in a car, it’s just you and the car, and you have to push yourself to your absolute limit,” she says, her voice rising again.

This passion and need to compete, Wolff asserts, is what ultimately drives her. But she is not shy about stating that she is also out to prove that she has what it takes. And the crux of the entire gender discourse surrounding her career lies here: She’s not out to prove that women are capable enough to compete in Formula One; she’s out to prove that she is.

This past July, Susie took to the Silverstone track and became the first woman to participate in a timed F1 session since 1992. “Many people said, ‘Ah, Susie Wolff, blonde girl in the pits trying to be a racing driver,’ and I was so determined to prove them wrong.”

Finishing just over two seconds behind the World Champion in the timesheets, her performance was deemed a success. “Within the Formula One paddock now, I walk around and I’m not judged anymore for being a blonde trying to break into Formula One. They can see my performance was there.”

Again I try to wrap my head around the image of this woman driving at neck-breaking speeds, on a racetrack, with other cars. And I’m glad we ended up talking so much about her being a woman.

“You’re kind of a badass, Miss Susie,” I admit. She smiles. “I can be.”

 

Photographer: Daniel Lehenbauer. Stylist: Victoria Gregory. Hair & Makeup: Ksenia Orzel using M.A.C Cosmetics, Illamasqua, and Bumble and Bumble. Producer: Seona Taylor-Bell. Styling Assistant: Ellis Wood.